“I no longer want you as my wife, you are a half woman!” – These are the heartbreaking words that Yousef told his wife Yasmin (not their real names). They have lived together for more than two decades. Just recently, Yasmin was diagnosed with breast cancer in Algeria. With advice from her physician, she went through a surgical procedure and had one of her breasts, the one with cancer, amputated. She then proceeded to have chemotherapy sessions and her recovery process kick-started.
Though she was now well out of risk, her troubles were far from over. As soon as her husband knew of the mastectomy, he sought to divorce her immediately. Because to him, as is with many other men in his country, a woman without one breast, is a ‘half woman’. And as such, she cannot fulfill her womanly duties.
The case of Yasmin is not an isolated one. Many other similar cases have been happening. This has led to women suffering from breast cancer in Algeria to hide and suffer in silence. Some have resorted to hiding their predicament from even their own family out of fear of stigma.
3000 Die Yearly From Breast Cancer in Algeria
The WHO reports that 8000 to 10,000 cases of breast cancer in Algeria are diagnosed every year. At the turn of the century, that rate was five times lower. Health experts have attributed the alarming rate to unhealthy lifestyles among Algerians, caused by a poor diet, smoking, and lack of physical activity.
The improved system of cancer diagnosis in Algeria has also been stated to be a reason why there is a higher rate. That inadvertently means that breast cancer in Algeria could have been a long-running problem but with a lower rate of diagnosis. The WHO further reports that more than three thousand women die yearly from breast cancer in Algeria.
The Role of Islam in Algeria
Being an Islamic country, Algerian men highly regard the femininity of women. The women, therefore, dread anything that would make them less attractive to their men. Be it accidents or, for cases such as Yasmin’s, anything that would alter their physical appearance and make them less attractive is not welcome. Having to lose a breast to cancer only makes matters worse as breasts remain such an integral part of this femininity.
Many women have given themselves to suffer alone rather than disclosing it to their husbands or close family. According to AFP, one woman rather chose to remain with a cancerous breast than to have it removed. This is despite the pain and imminent risk of death. To her, it was much better to endure the pain and to die of cancer than to be called a half woman and, even worse, get divorced. Still, another one chose to conceal her whole body. In Islam, it is required of women to cover their bodies, especially the head. But for her, she did not do it because it was a requirement, instead, she was hiding the effects of chemotherapy.
Coping with Breast Cancer: Ignorant Men
Sasmia Gasmi is an Algerian breast cancer survivor. She is also the founder of Nur Doha, a charity concerned with breast cancer in Algeria. She says that some of these women have sunken into depression after their husbands divorced them. The men leave them when they are most vulnerable and need a lot of support, morally and financially. In most cases, the women are left without a single cent or property. As a result, they become even more desperate and vulnerable. The fact that society has labeled cancer as a death sentence does not make things any easier.
Kamel Chekkat, a theologian in Algeria condemns the acts of these men and says that they are anti-Islam. According to him, Islam teaches couples to love and stand with each other at all times. It is therefore not about religion, but the men are just being ignorant. He further notes that with education, an attitude change could be achieved.
Whereas cancer and divorce is not the best combination, some of the women are glad as they are now free from their former abusive marriages.
Breast cancer in Algeria is a big problem, but the attitude towards victims is an even bigger problem. We hope that proper sensitization will be carried out and help save the women from needless agony.